Reading and Listening


From a really fascinating post by Edward Feser on his intellectual journey through atheism. His words really remind me of my students, and how many of them “read” things or “listen” to arguments:

Because to read something is not necessarily to understand it.  Partly, of course, because when you’re young, you always understand less than you think you do.  But mainly because, to understand someone, it’s not enough to sit there tapping your foot while he talks.  You’ve got to listen, rather than merely waiting for a pause so that you can insert the response you’d already formulated before he even opened his mouth.  And when you’re a young man who thinks he’s got the religious question all figured out, you’re in little mood to listen — especially if you’ve fallen in love with one side of the question, the side that’s new and sexy because it’s not what you grew up believing.  Zeal of the deconverted, and all that.
You’re pretty much just going through the motions at that point.  And if, while in that mindset, what you’re reading from the other side are seemingly archaic works, written in a forbidding jargon, presenting arguments and ideas no one defends anymore (or at least no one in the “mainstream”), your understanding is bound to be superficial and inaccurate.  You’ll take whatever happens to strike you as the main themes, read into them what you’re familiar with from modern writers, and ignore the unfamiliar bits as irrelevant.  “This part sounds like what Leibniz or Plantinga says, but Hume and Mackie already showed what’s wrong with that; I don’t even know what the hell this other part means, but no one today seems to be saying that sort of thing anyway, so who cares…”  Read it, read into it, dismiss it, move on.  How far can you go wrong?
Very, very far.   It took me the better part of a decade to see that.
This is also why I have added a new component to teaching essays. After teaching them the basics, I have begun to force them to dedicate their first body paragraphs to the opposite opinion–to whatever they are arguing against. And I don’t mean a paragraph that rattles on and on about their own ideas. I mean a paragraph that explores the other side and explains what that side’s strongest arguments are.
Because, I have found, you never really understand something until you try to explain it (read: teach it!) to someone else.
See Feser again:
Naturally, I had already long been aware of this sort of argument.  The difference was that when I had first thought about it years before I was approaching it as someone who had had a religious background and wanted to see whether there was any argument for God’s existence that was really persuasive.  Russell’s retort to Copleston, to the effect that we can always insist that the universe is just there and that’s that, had then seemed to me sufficient to show that the argument was simply not compelling.  We’re just not rationally forced to accept it.  I had, as it were, put the argument on trial and it had been unable to establish its innocence to my satisfaction.  But now I was approaching it as a naturalist who was trying to give my students a reason to see the argument as something at least worth thinking about for a class period or two.  I was playing defense attorney rather than prosecution, but a defense attorney with the confidence of someone who didn’t have a stake in his client’s acquittal.  Already being a confirmed naturalist, I could be dispassionate rather than argumentative, and could treat the whole thing as a philosophical exercise.
And from that point of view it started to seem that Russell’s reply, while it had rhetorical power, was perhaps not quite airtight philosophically.  Sure, you could always say that there’s no ultimate explanation.  And maybe there’s no way to prove otherwise.  But is it really true?  Is it really even more plausible to think that than to think that there is an explanation?  Guys like Rowe and Taylor, by no means religious fanatics or apologists but just philosophers entertaining a deep question, seemed to take the question pretty seriously.  Interesting, I thought.  Though for the time being, “interesting” — rather than correct or persuasive — was all I found it.
Because really, in matters of religion, philosophy, or even just in-class essays, we are talking about what is true. And if we really want to know what is true, we cannot be afraid of empathizing with our opponents — and really trying to listen to what they say.